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German scientists launch nuclear fusion experiment

Researchers ran a test designed to bring them a step closer to finding a clean replacement for fossil fuels. The experiment was part of an effort to advance nuclear fusion technology.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel switched on a Wendelstein 7-X device on Wednesday at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald.

A small amount of hydrogen was injected into the device that was then heated up by a giant microwave. The hydrogen then turned into a gas known as plasma, similar to the substance found in the sun. The plasma existed, however, for just a fraction of a second before cooling down as planned.

"Everything went well today," said Robert Wolf, a senior scientist involved in the project. "With a system as complex as this you have to make sure everything works perfectly and there's always a risk."

The ceremony was the beginning of an experiment designed to test whether such a device could hold plasma in place in nuclear reactors. A key factor in determining whether fusion is a reliable power solution will be finding a way to cool an array of magnets that would be required to keep the plasma floating in its holder.

Nuclear fusion is regarded as a safer, cleaner alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear reactors when it comes to creating electricity. During the nuclear fusion process, atoms join at very high temperatures and release large amounts of energy. A similar process is responsible for the energy created by the sun.

Before becoming a politician, Merkel trained as a physicist and worked at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin Adlershof.

blc/sms (dpa, AP)

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